ISS Music Video

Is this the most expensive music video ever?

—Various Youtube commenters

For starters, a big welcome home to Chris Hadfield, who returned to Earth last night after a memorable stint as commander of the International Space Station.

Commander Hadfield’s video performance of Space Oddity was an instant hit, and prompted many commenters to ask whether it should count as the most expensive music video ever made.

At a total lifetime cost in the neighborhood of \$150 billion [1], the International Space Station is one of the world’s most expensive megaprojects. (The exact cost is hard to pin down, since the countries contributing don’t all handle their finances the same way.)

By comparison, the most expensive music videos have production budgets in the range of a few million dollars. If Commander Hadfield’s video gets the ISS’s entire \$150 billion price tag, then it must be tens of thousands of times more expensive than the runner-up, right?

Not so fast.

The ISS is expensive, but there have been music videos set against an even more expensive backdrop.

At a cost of roughly \$400 billion, the US Eisenhower Interstate Highway System is probably the most expensive peacetime public works project in the history of mankind. If we’re including the entire ISS in the cost of Commander Hadfield’s video, any video shot on the American highway system should get the cost of the highway system added to its total.

By that measure, the commander’s video would lose to U2’s Last Night on Earth, which was filmed on a section of I-670 in Missouri,[2] and therefore cost more than the ISS and the Moon landing program combined.

In both cases, the comparison doesn’t really make sense; both the ISS and the US highway system are used for things other than making music videos.[citation needed] Instead, let’s look at some other ways we could calculate the cost of Hadfield’s video.

If you spread out the ISS’s price tag across all the astronaut-hours spent on board, you come up with about \$7.5 million per person per day, or roughly \$90 per second.[3] That sounds like a lot, but at that rate, the five-and-a-half-minute video only runs about \$30,000. Given that the video has probably done more for space industry than millions in public outreach, that’s a good deal.

Hadfield’s son confirmed that Hadfield shot the video himself with no help from other astronauts, so even if we assume he spent several hours setting it up and recording it, we don’t come close to the \$7 million cost of the video Michael and Janet Jackson made for Scream.

And the truth is, this isn’t a very good way to calculate costs either. Presumably, Commander Hadfield isn’t busy commanding things 24/7. He has some free time, and it’s no skin off anyone’s back how he spends it (assuming his hobby isn’t drilling holes in walls). It’s hard to argue that shooting the video cost anyone \$90/second when he was going to be up there floating around anyway.

Alternately, we could look at how much Commander Hadfield was paid to make the video. As a Canadian astronaut, his salary is somewhere between \$145,200 and \$171,000 CAD.[4] Astronaut work hours are a little atypical, but if we assume that in the long run he’s on the job 40 hours a week, that works out to \$85/hour. By that measure, the cost of the video was \$7.84. Not 7.84 million; 7 dollars and 84 cents (\$7.76 US).

And then there’s the guitar.

While it’s hard to argue that the entire cost of the ISS counts toward the video, we could at least include the cost to launch the guitar. The Larrivée Parlor acoustic guitar in the video went up years ago on the Space Shuttle, and astronauts have been playing it ever since.[5] Given that launch costs at the time were between \$20,000 and \$30,000 per pound, the cost to send up the guitar was probably in the neighborhood of \$75,000.

While that’s far from the most anyone’s paid for a guitar,[6] it’s certainly a lot of money. And if playing music helps the astronauts relax and keep from going crazy while they’re crammed together in a tin can for months at a time, it’s probably a worthwhile investment.

Of course, this plan could backfire.